When working with people from different cultural backgrounds, do you also sometimes feel a strong emotion, but find it difficult to pin down why it is even actually there and what it means?
If it’s anger you could feel your heart racing, your body finding it hard to just stay still – maybe you’re shaking a bit or trembling, you could be feeling hot in your neck and/or face, you could even feel a headache or stomach ache. But why?! Why did someone’s comment make you so angry?
If you’re anxious or nervous, you might feel your palms sweating or a dry mouth, your voice can start shaking and breaking, your body language changing. But why, why are you responding like that to stress? Why did certain situation make you that uncertain and nervous?
Maybe you’re feeling sad or disappointed and it can show in your body in a speeding heartbeat, or maybe feeling hot and cold, or completely tired and apathetic. But why are you disappointed? What were you expecting? What was so important to you that it got to you so much?
When you look a bit closer at your emotions and feelings you can really learn a lot about yourself! Let me share a couple of examples with you to show you how those emotions can help us indicate the core values and beliefs we hold. This awareness is the first and necessary step to go any further and make any positive change in your life!
Emotional roller coaster
When I first moved abroad I could literally burst into tears or weep over the fact that I didn’t understand when people were speaking quickly (well, at their normal pace) in English or using words/references I didn’t know. Sounds ridiculous when you don’t know the context and what was going on in my head. The context was that in my mind – at school, at university, in life generally up to that point – I was always the one who could speak very good English. It was one of the defining characteristics for me and also my strength. People were coming to me with questions or to ask for help with translations. When I decided to move abroad from Poland to England I thought of many different things and was prepared for many different challenges, but not this one. Not the one with the language. I thought I had nailed that one already!
Suddenly, when thrown into the real native speaking world it turned out that I still have a lot of work to do. Of course it was hard! I mean, duuuh, it was obvious that this would happen even before I confirmed my move to the UK. But at that point I was not aware that it was such a big thing for my identity. It wasn’t simply about the language and whether I could communicate or not. I could well enough! In terms of the skills, I could communicate well and do my job well and ask people for help when needed, no worries. What I needed to do is the inner work on my beliefs once I realised that it was not really a language problem, but an identity one.
Looking into where the emotions of anxiety and disappointment [with myself] were coming from helped me sort myself out relatively quickly and reframe how I was approaching the language, accent and fluency challenges.
Wrong framing leading to judgments
One other thing that I would do after I moved abroad was to get really angry inside when people were not saying things directly to me or when they were making small talk at every possible occasion, sometimes twice a day asking about the same thing.
When I was at that stage of my adaptation , I then was very quick to make snap judgments. When speaking to my friends back home I would make many generalisations and judgments about what British people are like. Needless to say that it was just a passing stage and was certainly not the most adaptive way of dealing with the challenge.
At one point, seeing people’s reactions, observing my own and how they are not serving me, I stopped and reflected again. Why is it that it makes me so annoyed? What’s so bad about the small talk after all?
Turns out that I associated being indirect with protection and sometimes I couldn’t even decode the indirectness and understand the actual underlying message. You can imagine that the combination of (a) my perception of the indirect messages as patronizing and (b) the ignorance towards the underlying meanings did not result in the most comfortable first months of living abroad or receiving feedback at work 🙂
Giving myself time to understand the local customs, speaking openly to trusted people about the difficulties, reflection and reframing turned out to be good strategies for better adaptation. I wanted to adapt, I wanted to learn and I wanted to understand the British ways more.
I reframed “It’s so annoying that they never just say things as they are!” into “Not true that people here never say things as they are. They do, in their own way, which often happens to be more indirect than where I come from. Indirectness is not insulting or patronizing in any way but rather a way for both parties to be more comfortable with giving and receiving the message and not hurt anyone’s feelings.”
I also saw many advantages of the small talk, although it’s still not always my natural go-to preference when starting a business meeting or call. I stopped simply judging that it’s a waste of time and it’s unprofessional (another unserving belief here, by the way, that being professional means completely separating private and professional lives). Instead, I reflected and since then actually think that it can be extremely beneficial.
It can be useful for example as a way of giving people the opportunity to connect even for a couple of minutes, share something personal about their weekend and such. Although these conversations tend to be short, sharing even one personal detail or event from your life may spark a nice connection which can then continue in a more informal setting (in a kitchen, coffee break, over lunch) as a deeper conversation and help form friendships at work. These little ‘spark moments’ can certainly be helpful for new colleagues when they first arrive to the country or the company, as it gives more opportunities for building your new network.
Strategies for managing and understanding your emotions
- Have a clear understanding of why you are going abroad. Know why you are doing it and be honest with yourself, write it down, know your motivation. Never mind if it’s money, for someone, great project opportunity or something else. Write down what you are moving towards. This is the thing that will keep you going when things get tough. Sign up for the newsletter, download the Move Planning Card and get honest with yourself.
- Write a journal. Write down the things that annoy you, things that amaze you, things that make you laugh. Think why you react this way, which values those emotions are linked to. You will look back at them later on and will be amazed how far you’ve come. Take up the 7-day exercise from the previous article and see where it takes you!
- Give yourself time to experience all the different emotions and reactions. They will tell you more about yourself than you can imagine. But don’t linger in those uncomfortable emotions for too long. If you’re uncomfortable, take action to make things better! Taking it step by step and doing things your way is usually best.
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